12 incredibly awesome things to do in Bologna, Italy
An underrated gem just waiting to be explored (and devoured), Bologna is one of Italy’s most beautiful cities. Below is our guide to all the best things to see and do in Bologna, as well as all the essential travel information you need to make the most of your stay.
“Bologna is a city you come to be a local, not a tourist,“
This was the advice given to us - by a Bologna local, no less - before our trip to Italy’s famed red city (after our hike through the incredible Emilia Romagna region), and our curiosity had instantly been piqued.
In a time when many Italy’s most popular destinations are calling for help as they struggle with record-breaking tourist numbers (again) and move toward implementing tourism taxes, it seemed almost impossible that there could still be a place left in the country where an authentic experience was possible.
Yet Bologna is very much that place.
In our opinion, this is one of Italy’s most unique, beautiful, and underrated cities. Medieval terracotta buildings give the city its nickname, La Rossa, while miles of UNESCO heritage-listed porticoes paint the streets with lights, shadows, and deep architectural perspectives like a moving artwork (perfect for street photography!). Under these columns lie hidden galleries and hipster boutiques, hole in the wall bars and groups of students sharing a laugh between classes.
It’s also one of Italy’s most progressive cities, with a deeply liberal and politically edgy society, while also securing pride of place as the country’s gastronomic capital (here’s everything you need to know before visiting Bologna!). Not an easy feat in a country so famed for it’s delicious fare!
What’s more, there’s a distinct lack of foreign tourists sharing these beautiful streets with you, which makes for a beautifully authentic, immersive experience.
Often overlooked in favour of Italy’s other ‘hotspots’, if you’re a traveller in search of ‘true Italy’, Bologna has plenty to offer. Here are twelve things you should do on your visit to Bologna.
what to do and see in Bologna, Italy: a traveller’s guide
#1 Walk Bologna's endless porticoes
Lights and shadows, unique architectural angles, columns, capitals and frescoes; Bologna's porticoes create the most fascinating urban landscapes, and ones which we couldn't help but fall in love with.
The UNESCO world-heritage listed porticoes of Bologna were built between the city's prosperous Middle Ages and the early 20th century, when the growth of the University created the need for extra space. To avoid having to narrow the streets down to extend the footprint of the university, porticoes were built over the existing walkways - at a height that horses and carts could pass below them - that also created space for extensions to occur on top of them.
There are close to 40kms of porticoes throughout the city of Bologna, each with their own unique style and structure. By simply strolling the city's porticoes, it felt like we were getting to know the city and its history, one step at a time.
Locals use the porticoes in different ways, whether it be friends sitting under their arches to have an espresso or a smoke, or to walk their dogs in the absence of rain. University students even use them as advertising boards for the latest parties in town. But for us, it was the perfect place to take photos - they're just so picturesque we couldn't put our cameras down (except when it was time for Aperol Spritz).
Some of our favourite porticoes were:
The porticoes of Piazza Maggiore and the seat of the old University
The original wooden porticoes of Via Marsala
The porticoes of Piazza Santo Stefano
Where | Everywhere in Bologna!
#2 Climb to the top of Bologna, the Asinelli tower
If the idea of climbing 498 narrow, wooden steps to the top of a 97.2m tall leaning medieval tower (leaning a noticeable 1.3° off-centre) for the best views in Bologna sounds daunting, let us tell you - it is!
But the views from the summit of the Asinelli tower are unequivocally worth it, and watching the sun set high above the red city was one of our favourite things to do in Bologna.
The twin towers of Bologna, otherwise known as Le Due Torri, are the number one attraction in the city and one of its most commonly recognised symbols. Commenced in the 11th century, the towers were constructed by the prominent Asinelli and Garisenda families as defensive fortifications (and status symbols), strategically placed at the entry point in the city of the ancient Via Emilia (Aemilian Way) to warn off any potential invaders.
Curiously, they weren't the only towers in the city; close to 180 towers once dotted the Bologna skyline, a sort of middle age Manhattan. To this day, only twenty have survived the ravages of fires, wars and lightning strikes.
The panoramic views over the red city are incredible - you can see Bologna in every direction. To the west is the marvellous Piazza Maggiore and Basilica of San Luca, to the south west, the ancient Roman road of via Emilia. To the south, the green rolling hills of the Emilia Romagna region. And if you're feeling brave, lean your head over the railing to look down upon the shorter, leaning Garisenda Tower and Piazza de Porta Ravegana below.
Entry is € 5.00 per person, which you can book here. We recommend booking ahead of time a there are limited numbers allowed per viewing session. Visiting early in the day, or for the last admission time, will provide you with the most comfortable experience.
Where | le Due Torri, Bologna
Cost | € 5.00 per person, or free for Bologna Welcome Card PLUS holders
Tickets | Book your tickets to Le Due Torri here
Hiking the via Matildica in Emilia Romagna | The best way to discover the ‘real’ Italy
#3 Eat, and eat, and eat some of Bologna’s most famous dishes
During our week in in Bologna, we maaaaay have added a few kg's to our waistline, and we're not sorry about it one bit. The city does, after all have the nickname La Grassa ("the fat one"), an epithet we made sure we lived by.
Quite simply, eating is one of the best things to do in Bologna, and in a country famed for its cuisine, the city reigns supreme as the gastronomic capital of Italy.
The first thing to know is that Bologna is the birthplace of bolognese, or tagliatelle al ragù. Secondly, the region of Emilia Romagna is home to the glorious Parmigiano Reggiano, or parmesan, tortellini, tortelloni, mortadella, Parma ham, balsamic vinegar, and many other delicacies. And thirdly, consuming all this incredible food won't break the bank.
For traditional Bolognesi cuisine, the street of via della Moline offers a large variety of traditional restaurants, all with large terrace areas perfect for summer dining. Our pick of restaurants was Trattoria del Rosso, which served the most impressive tortelloni we had in Bologna. On the other hand, one place we would recommend missing was Osteria dell'Orsa, the Tripadvisor-famous restaurant we felt didn't quite live up to the hype - instead, head to Trattoria Anna Marie for the most authentic, home made Tagliatelle al ragù.
If you're after something a little more hipster (this city is very hip!), the student quarter of Bologna (near Piazza Guiseppe Verdi) was one of our favourite areas for lively bars, cafes and street food markets. Each evening, bars in the area vie for students attention by offering aperitivo, a complimentary buffet, as long as you enjoy a few alcoholic beverages, which for us was copious amounts of Aperol Spritz (hey, they were cheap!). The food is surprisingly good, with both vegetarian and meat dishes offered.
For a more market vibe, check out the streets and laneways of Quadrilatero, just off Piazza Maggiore.
While in Bologna we recommend trying these essential meals:
Tagliatelle al ragù
Tortellini in broth
Pumpkin Tortelli with parmesan
Butter and sage Tortelloni
Where | Everywhere in Bologna, or via della Moline, student quarter of Bologna (near Piazza Guiseppe Verdi), Quadrilatero
Cost | Primi: €6 - €10, Secondi: €10 - €15, Dolci: €3 - €5 euro
Read more | Check out this great Bologna Food Guide by our friends 2FoodTrippers!
#4 People watch in the centre of Bologna, Piazza Maggiore
One of the largest and oldest squares in Italy, Piazza Maggiore is the epicentre of political and social life in Bologna, and the starting point for everything to do in Bologna.
Surrounded by some of Bologna's grandest buildings the Basilica di San Petronio, Palazzo dei Notai, Palazzo d'Accursio, Palazzo del Podestà, Palazzo dei Bianchi and the fountain of Neptune, Piazza Maggiore really is the most beautiful European squares we've laid eyes on.
But the beauty of Piazza Maggiore lies beyond its attractive facade. For centuries, locals have embraced and enjoyed this space, and it really is the true definition of a public square. In fact, Piazza Maggiore was home to one of Europe’s biggest open-air market until the mid-1800s with products coming from all over the world, which explains how it grew into the meeting spot for locals in the city.
We spent many afternoons in Piazza Maggiore doing something we love: people watching. We sat on the stairs of San Petronio watching as cyclists swerved through crowds of rowdy students, tourists posed for selfies in front of timeless architecture, locals enjoyed an espresso and cigarette at shaded cafes, and buskers filled the square with their musical delights. As the sun went down, we watched Piazza Maggiore and its beautiful buildings illuminate, as the noise from crowds reverberated throughout the whole square. It makes for a slightly surreal but seriously alluring experience.
Piazza Maggiore is also home to the Welcome Bologna visitor information centre, where you'll find everything to do with the city. It's also the starting point for a lot of city tours, as well as the 'train' to the Sanctuary of San Luca.
Where | Piazza Maggiore
#5 Admire the unfinished beauty of the Basilica of San Petronio
Smack bang in the middle of Bologna, just off Piazza Maggiore, lies one of the city's most important and imposing structures, San Petronio church.
Named in honour of the patron of Bologna, Saint Petronius, construction of the basilica started in 1390. Although it was never completed due to a rivalry with Rome (just look at the half marble, half brick facade on the exterior for the proof!), the church evolved through the middle ages to become the structure it is today.
Inside, the church has many distinctive qualities which make it one of the most unique we've visited, so it's a definite stop for any Bologna itinerary. These include:
The Meridian line | The longest Meridian in the world (67m), created in 1656 by Gian Domenico Cassini. It corresponds to 1/600,000 of the Earth’s circumference and, to this day, it marks the passing of days and seasons, with the sun ray entering from a hole positioned in the vault 27 meters above the ground and hitting precisely the time of year on the line.
Ancient Organs | San Petronius is home to the oldest functioning organ in the world, built in 1470 by Lorenzo da Prato. It's also home to another 400 year old organ.
The Frescoes | San Petronius features several impressive frescoes, including Giovanni da Modena's scenes of the Last Judgement, and Maometto's 'In Inferno Canto 28'
Side chapels | One of the 22 chapels of the basilica, Cappella Bolognini, houses an original depiction of Heaven and Hell, inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy
Cost | Entry is free, however it costs €2 to take photos inside
Opening times | Open daily from 07.45am - 14:00pm and 15:00pm - 18:00pm
Tips | Cover your shoulders and knees, and remove any hats
#6 Explore Bologna's Museum of Modern Art (MAMBO)
A little bit tired of all the historical sites of Bologna, we decided to spend an afternoon checking out something a little more modern - Bologna's Museum of Modern Art (MAMbo).
Located in a former bread bakery, MAMbo is now a centre for creativity and experimentation, and features permanent and loaned collections set out over 9,500sqm of modern, architecturally fluid floorspace. The permanent collection is organised into nine separate themes spanning from the 20th century to present.
Our favourite exhibition was that of Italy's famous still life painter (and Bologna native), Giorgio Morandi. The exhibition features some of his most famous and significant works, and analyses the motifs and periods that characterised Morandi's work.
Where | Museo D'Arte Moderna di Bologna (MAMbo)
Cost | €6.00 to permanent collections
Opening times | 10:00am - 18:30pm Tues, Wed, Fri - Sunday (and holidays)
Thursday: 10:00am - 22:00pm.
#7 Explore the colourful market streets of Quadrilatero
To the east of Piazza Maggiore lies the bustling, colourful streets of Quadrilatero, one of our favourite parts of Bologna.
This is the trendy, beating gourmet heart of Bologna. It’s somewhat odorous alleyways (fish, anyone?!) are filled with greengrocers and fishmongers shouting the days specials, while the warm scent of fresh-baked bread wafts from the local artisanal bakers. Quaint cafes churn out morning espressos for their regulars, while tourists slowly wander through taking in all the sights and sounds. Quadrilatero is a sensory overload in the best possible way.
Set on the site of ancient Bologna, the Quadrilatero was the home to many markets and food stalls during the Middle Ages. It is now the commercial heart of the old town and the place in Bologna to find all the incredible local produce, including freshly made pasta, local balsamico, aged cheeses, delicious charcuterie, and of course terrific (and inexpensive) wine.
There are also a number of restaurants and bars that dot the area, perfect for a lunch or afternoon antipasti.
Where | Quadrilatero, Bologna
#8 Sample Italy's best gelato
If you've followed us for a while, you'll know there's nothing we like more than gelato. So when a Bolognesi local, Alice, recommended Cremeria Cavour as the best gelato in town, we knew we had to visit.
Located in the heart of Bologna in Piazza Cavour, Cremeria Cavour was set up in 2008 by brothers Alessandro and Stefano. Their aim? To use the best ingredients and traditional Bolognesi passion and love to produce the finest artisanal gelato in town.
The result, we both agreed, was the best gelato we've ever eaten. Ever.
We sampled The Giant, a pine nut ice cream, Fior di Panna, Chocolate (OMG YUM!), and Pistachio, all as good as each other. The quality ingredients were noticeable as the flavours were as fresh as we've ever tasted. Add incredibly knowledgeable and friendly staff and the ability to 'taste before you buy', and Cremeria Cavour is onto a winner.
Another great gelato/cremeria we'd recommend trying is Cremeria la Vecchia Stalla, on via Santo Stefano.
Where | Cremeria Cavour, Piazza Cavour
Cost | between €2 - 4
Menu | You can view Cremeria Cavour's menu here
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#9 Find Bologna's hidden canals
A little known fact is that Bologna has a 60km network of canals dating back to the Middle Ages. Used largely as a way to provide power to the Bologna's industry, the majority of the canals are now obscured by the ever expanding city. There are, however, a few locations where you can get a sneaky glimpse at part of the city's heritage.
If you've got an afternoon to spare, we recommend going in search of the Bologna's colourful, hidden canals. You can find the best Bologna canal viewpoints at the following locations:
The little window on via Piella | a charming and colourful view of Reno canal through a restored 'window'. It's kinda cute!
Via Capo di Lucca | the Moline canal runs partially uncovered between the buildings. If you look closely, there are still some Renaissance age millers' houses on the right
From the bridge in via Malcontenti | on via Malcontenti is the only remaining watering place, used for washing carts and watering animals
Map | Here's a detailed map of Bologna's hidden canals
#10 Go back in time at Bologna University's Anatomical room
Bologna has always been a liberal-minded and progressive city, so it wasn’t entirely surprising to learn that it was also home to the oldest university in the western world, founded in 1088.
There’s just something intriguing and awe-inspiring about traipsing the halls of an old university. All those centuries of learning, debate, and intelligent reflection seem almost within reach, as though they’ve seeped into the very foundations of the buildings to whisper gently to curious folk like us passing through.
This intrigue is what led us to the Anatomical Theatre of the Archiginnasio, a 17th-century anatomical lecture hall at the old medical school in Bologna. Intricately carved entirely out of spruce wood, with an elaborate teachers chair and canopy held by the two famous spellati statues (carved ‘skinless’ men) as well as statues of famous doctors and beautiful ceiling motifs full of astrological symbols, this is probably the most stunning and elegant place we could ever think of cutting open a dead body in!
In the centre of the room lies a marble table (a copy of the original), where fresh cadavers were once dissected by medical students and teachers. Unfortunately, the building was heavily bombed during World War II but was rebuilt to its former glory using its original pieces.
The Teatro Anatomico, along with the seemingly endless library (which is locked to outsiders, but you can see peek through the door at) is absolutely interesting enough to make it onto any list of things to do in Bologna!
Opening hours | Mon - Fri: 09:00am - 19:00pm
Sat: 09:00am - 14:00pm
Cost | €3 entry (worth it, in our opinion!)
#11 Exploring (and Aperol Spritz) in the hipster district of Ghetto Ebracio
First things first, Bologna is one of the coolest places we've ever visited.
Due to its liberal, progressive inhabitants and world class university, the city is brimming with people way cooler than we'll ever be. And the home of Bologna's uber-cool is Ghetto Ebracio.
This is the former 16th century Jewish Ghetto, now transformed into an area brimming with some of the city's most hipster shopping, bars and restaurants. The atmosphere created by the narrow streets, tiny windows and curious corners make it a great place to explore. Indeed, we spent many an afternoon meandering around its colourful streets, enjoying the heady mix of boutiques, vintage stores, bars and street art.
After an afternoon exploring the colourful district, we stumbled upon Camera a Sud, enticed by the hipster-vintage surrounds and the prospect of cheap Aperol Spritz. And after spending every afternoon there for the next three days, we're happy we did. Not only was the Spritz cheap, it ended up being the perfect place to chill out after a long day of walking.
This hidden gem is filled with uni students and Bologna's uber cool, who sip spritz and smoke while no doubt discussing the horrid state of Italian politics. Rain, hail or shine, it's the perfect place to sit, chill and chat.
Cost | glass of wine €4.50, large beer €4.50, Negroni €6, Spritz €6
Opening hours | Sun - Mon: 12:00pm - 12:00am
Tue - Sat: 12:00pm - 01:00am
#12 Take the long walk (or train) to Bologna's famous Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca church
"When I see San Luca, I know I'm home" smiled our guide Alice, referring to Bologna's imposing hilltop church of Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca. San Luca is an unmissable feature of the Bologna skyline, and along with Le Due Torri is one of the city’s icons.
If you've got an afternoon to spare, one of the best things to do in Bologna is to climb the 3.8km route from Piazza Maggiore up to Colle della Guardia and the San Luca Sanctuary. Roughly an hour in length, the walk follows Portico di San Luca; a beautiful, covered path which consists of exactly 666 arches (devilish detail!).
On a clear day, the views from San Luca over Bologna are incredible and definitely worth the hike.
If you'd prefer the easier option, you can catch the San Luca Express from Piazza Maggiore to the Basilica at half hourly intervals through the day (check the timetable here).
Cost | €10 for the train + guide, €5 to climb the 100 stairs to the top
Opening hours | Summer, 7:00am - 19:00pm
Winter 7:00am - 18:00pm
A Map of the best things to do in Bologna
Here's our map of what to do in Bologna, including all the major sights.
Bologna essential information | Our Bologna trip planing essentials
WHERE IS BOLOGNA?
Bologna is the capital city of the Emilia Romagna region of Italy, located in northern Italy. With a population of close to 400,000, it's Italy's 7th largest city.
When to visit Bologna?
Like most European cities, Bologna comes alive during the warmer months from May - October, when the temperatures are warm and there's barely any rain.
The average temperatures during July and August are around 30 degrees, which might be a little too warm to enjoy exploring the city. Therefore, the best time to visit Bologna is during June or September, when the days are long, warm but not stifling!
Bologna welcome card
When visiting Bologna, we recommend purchasing the Bologna Welcome Card, a tourist card that helps you discover the best things to do in Bologna easily and cost effectively.
The Bologna Welcome card can be purchased online or at tourist info points in town.
What | Bologna Welcome card
Cost | € 25
Where to stay in Bologna
If you’re a fan of AirBnB, there are heaps of options available in Bologna. Book using our code and receive up to £30 off your booking.
We’ve also written a comprehensive guide to Airbnb to help you book the best, cheapest and safest accommodation, every time.
While we stayed at the Hotel Porta San Mamolo, we personally found the ‘traditional charm’ of the rooms a little dated. There are plenty of great hotel options in Bologna (like the Canonica Apartments!) and as the city is small enough to be pretty walkable we’d recommend staying just outside the city centre so you’re not kept up all night by the lively nightlife.
Alternatively, check prices and availability for hostels in Bologna here.
How to get to Bolonga, Italy
Flights arrive and depart Bologna's G. Marconi International Airport, about 30 minutes from the city.
Check flight prices and availability to Bologna with Skyscanner.
Aerobus runs a service to the Airport from Bologna central station (and return) every 11 minutes from 5:30am, and is the best way to get to and from the airport. Tickets cost € 6.00 per person.
Bologna is serviced by Italy's high-speed train network, so it's easy to find tickets to and from the city to many other European destinations.
We recommend booking tickets in advance to secure seats, especially during the summer months.
To check departure times, availability and to book tickets, click here.
Bologna's central railway station is located a 20 minute walk south of the historic city centre and all the city's best attractions.
HOW TO GET AROUND BOLOGNA
Bologna is a pretty compact city, and super easy to walk around. Given the historic porticoes that line most of the historic city centre, this is definitely the best way to get around the city.
Bologna's bus network, run by TPER, is efficient and well serviced, and a good alternative to explore Bologna's best things to do.
Maps and tickets are available in the Bologna Welcome tourist office, located in Piazza Maggiore.
Tickets allow you to make multiple journeys within a 75-minute period, however you must validate your ticket when entering the bus.
Services run daily from 0630 until 2300 on main routes. Check timetables and routes here.
Have you been to Bologna yourself? Help your fellow travellers our by sharing your favourite things to do in Bologna in the comments below!